Let the children play

Let the children play

Main Page Content

UI-Iowa Children's Museum initiative encourages children, and adults, to just play
parent and child playing a card gameLet the children play! That's the message behind "Playing is Learning," an intiiative by the University of Iowa and the Iowa Children's Museum in Coralville. Photo by Hawk City Productions.

If you were born before the dawn of the digital age, your memories of play may differ greatly from those of your children. Whereas you amused yourself by riding your bicycle* or playing “kick the can” until well after sunset, your children may be thoroughly amused playing a handheld video game or watching a favorite show on television.

*Those of a certain age may remember tooling around on a “Big Wheel” in lieu of a tricycle, at least until graduating to a two-wheeler. Of interest perhaps only to a few, the Big Wheel was inducted in 2009 into the National Toy Hall of Fame, located in Rochester, NY.

While attitudes toward play have always changed, there is growing concern in academic and educational circles that the quality of play is affecting a child’s ability to learn and to be ready for school. For these researchers, how children up to about age 5 play—and, especially, whether they engage in relatively unstructured, unfettered games for play’s sake—is falling victim to a societal rigidity, extending from the parents to the school yard.

“We’re putting kids in a standard pedagogical box,” contends John Spencer, a psychology professor at the University of Iowa who studies infant and child behavior. “The way you learn is not in a classroom doing worksheets when you’re really young. One hundred years of child development research has taught us the way to learn is to play.”

To address this imbalance, the UI has partnered with the Iowa Children’s Museum in Coralville to sponsor the debut of the “Playing is Learning” initiative. The goal is to introduce—or reintroduce—parents and children alike to simple games that make play a “purposeless, fun, freeing experience,” according to literature promoting the program.

The kick-off event is being held from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on May 14 at the children’s museum. Several play stations will be set up, and museum staff, academics and others will be on hand to aid parents and children immerse themselves in myriad games and activities. Staff also will hand out “Game of Games” cards with instructions for simple, five-minute games (which also can be found on a mobile website) that parents can play with their children in about any setting, from the car to the restaurant. The museum plans to make the exhibits permanent as well, expanding on them as they learn more about which displays most interest children.

“This isn’t about teaching kids how to play; rather it’s focused on helping adults better understand that play isn’t a frivolous activity but an essential experience critical to healthy child development,” says Deborah Dunkhase, the Iowa Children’s Museum's executive director.

The museum exhibits will be dynamic, explaining what children are learning with each activity and game, the organizers say. They were designed by graduate psychology students under the tutelage of Spencer and Bradley Dicharry, assistant professor of design in the UI School of Art and Art History.

Spencer, also affiliated with the interdisciplinary Delta Center at the UI, has collaborated with the children’s museum for the past eight years. He believes Playing is Learning will resonate with adults, even if grownups may define play differently.

“You could say that’s why God invented weekends. Adults need play time, too.”

Those interested in attending are encouraged to make a reservation with Julie Ostrem, at julie-ostrem@uiowa.edu.


John Spencer, Psychology, 319-335-2482
Deborah Dunkhase, Iowa Children's Museum, 319-625-6255, ext. 210


Email Button